The First Baseball "Stats Man"
Since publishing his Historical Baseball Abstract in 1985, Bill James has written two dozen other books that zero in on particular baseball stats that other writers previously never considered putting together on paper. Crowned the present-day guru of baseball stats, James’ numbers are legendary: Sabermetrics, we call them today. He’s invented Runs Created, the Power-Speed Number on the offensive side of things, and Range Factor for defensive skills, to name a few. For several years now, Oakland A’s GM Billy Bean has been integrating the James-style configurations into his own operation and it’s worked. We know it as Moneyball: a book and a movie.
But who was James influenced by? By his own admission: Allan Roth. “He was the guy who began it all,” James said.
Born to a Jewish family in Montreal, Quebec in 1917, Abraham “Allan” Roth grew up a huge sports fan: hockey and baseball, especially baseball. As a teenager, he compiled his own stats in his spare time on his hometown Montreal Royals, the top minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. For a short time, he worked for the National Hockey League as the league’s official statistician, before being drafted during World War II into the Canadian Army in early 1942. Discharged in 1944, he wrote sports articles for the Montreal Standard and plugged away part-time compiling hockey stats for the Montreal Canadiens.
During spring training that year in Bear Mountain, New York, Roth approached Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey with important data he had compiled that the Dodgers front office could use to win games, such as how hitters faired against left-handed and right-handed pitchers, batting averages on different ball counts, batting averages with runners in scoring position, where batters base hits went (called “spray charts” today), how hitters faired in day and night games and on the road and at home, and that on-base percentage was ultimately more important than batting average. Impressed, Rickey hired Roth, but it took the Canadian stats man until early 1947 to obtain his visa to work in the United States. At a $5,000 yearly salary, Roth became the first full-time statistician hired by a major league baseball team. In an age before computers, he recorded everything by hand, using only a calculator.
Roth’s first regular-season game as a Dodger employee was also Jackie Robinson’s first regular-season game as a Dodger player: Opening Day, April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn against the Boston Braves. From that day forward, until he left the Dodgers in 1964, Roth recorded every pitch of nearly every Dodgers game. While in Brooklyn and Los Angeles for those 18 years, the Dodgers finished first or second an astonishing 13 times.
Burt Shotton, who managed the Dodgers to two pennants between the years 1947-1950, gladly took to heart the information that Roth handed him. One example, Roth discovered that Jackie Robinson’s bat produced the most runs with players in scoring position and advised Shotton to shift Robinson from his second spot in the batting lineup down to the prestigious clean-up fourth spot for the 1949 season. Robinson produced: a banner year hitting .342 with 16 homers and 124 RBI’s, impressive enough to be voted National League MVP.
The next manager, Charlie Dressen, who ran the Dodgers from 1951-1953, wanted nothing to do with Roth and his careful attention to detail, numbers, and percentages. The arrogant Dressen was from the old school where a manager played on hunches: No bookworm was going to tell him how to run the ballclub. Starting in the 1951 season, Dressen told GM Buzzie Bavasi to relocate Roth from his seat near the Dodger dugout to the radio booth where Vin Scully was broadcasting. Unlike Dressen, Scully welcomed Roth’s stats and used them over the air. Had Dressen paid more attention to Roth’s valuable numbers, he probably never would have brought in Ralph Branca to pitch to New York Giants Bobby Thomson in the classic ninth inning of the third game of the 1951 National League playoff to decide the pennant.
All season long Thomson had teed off on Branca to the tune of 4-for-12 at the plate, with a triple, two homers, four RBI’s, and only one strikeout. Also, prior to facing Thomson, Branca had lost five games to the Giants, and had given up 10 homers to them, three more than all the other seven league teams he faced that year combined. On the second pitch from Branca, a fastball, Thomson smashed it over the Polo Grounds left-field wall to win the game and the pennant. All Roth could do was sit and shake his head. We can just imagine what he was saying about the stubborn, old-fashioned Dressen under his breath.
When Dressen was dismissed following the 1953 season, virtual unknown Walter Alston took over the managerial reins. But the Dodgers finished in second place in 1954, after two straight World Series appearances. Roth had an answer. He knew that the hitting and especially the pitching were not as good as past years. But that was only part of the problem. Armed with his pages of stats, he notified owner Walter O’Malley that Alston had not incorporated the same aggressive running game that Dressen had used for three years. The Dodgers’ team doubles and stolen bases, in particular, were in the middle of the National League eight-team pack. Taking hold of Roth’s information, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers performed an about-face and led the National League in runs scored, doubles, homers, batting average, slugging average, earned run average and stolen bases. They had it all. They also won their first World Series by beating the New York Yankees in seven games, climaxed by Johnny Podres’ legendary 2-0 shutout at Yankee Stadium.
Four years later, during another significant pennant run, the Dodgers (now in Los Angeles since 1958), headed into San Francisco for a vital three-game weekend set starting Friday, September 18. The announced starters were Don Drysdale, Roger Craig, and Johnny Podres, in that order. When a Friday night rain forced a Saturday doubleheader, Alston decided to go with the same pitching order. Roth then let Alston know that Drysdale was a much better night pitcher than Craig. So, Craig started the afternoon game: Drysdale, with his flaming fastball, started the nightcap. The Dodgers won both games, as well as the Sunday afternoon game to take the National League lead by half a game over the rival Giants. The Dodgers won the pennant nine days later and eventually took the World Series their second year in Los Angeles by beating the Chicago White Sox.
Starting with the Dodgers move to Los Angeles in 1958, Roth began to make a habit of attending spring training with the purpose of meeting and talking to each player and coach and go over ways on how to improve player performances. For a number of years, he also kept track of relief pitcher “saves.” In 1964, it became an official baseball stat. Then Roth was fired by the Dodgers at season’s end.
Roth went on to join the NBC Game of the Week as head statistician, nursing Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek the usual stack-load of numbers and valuations, then ABC later on at the same position, where he helped out people like Al Michaels the same kind of valuable stats. From 1955-1972, he was the editor of the classic Who’s Who in Baseball. I have eight of those years in my sports memorabilia collection.
Roth died of a heart attack in 1992 in Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles chapter of the Society for Baseball Research is named in his honor. Roth was also inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.